Hanging out backstage isn’t what it used to be. Remember the movie Almost Famous? A budding music journalist goes on the road in the early seventies with the fictional band Stillwater, a group partially based on the Allman Brothers, and gets a behind-the-curtain look into a world of groupies, drugs, and hard drinking. Today it’s mostly just about what the Wi-Fi password is, video games, and maybe a green juice.
But what hasn’t changed, mercifully, is the spine-tingly adrenaline rush as the house lights dim. And on this sultry night just before a show in Ocala, Florida, Devon Allman tells his bandmates to huddle up. This tour has been a special one because Duane Betts is here too, playing the opening slot before the Devon Allman Project’s set. Allman grabs Betts, and everyone links arms, bows their heads, and lets out a deep breath as Allman gives the blessing:
“Dear Great One, thanks for bringing us here safe and sound today. Please watch over our families while we’re gone. They’re always on our minds and always in our hearts. Please watch over the good folks tonight. Make sure they can shake off the day, shimmy into the night, and turn off the world for a couple of hours with us and feel good. Give us the power to do that and watch over the beats, the grooves, and the notes. These things we ask. Amen.”
Devon is the son of the late Gregg Allman, while Duane’s father is the guitarist Dickey Betts, both founding members of the Allman Brothers Band. And though the younger Allman and Betts have known each other for decades, this year marks the launch of their joint project, the Allman Betts Band, with a debut album, Down to the River, out in June and an extensive tour, where they’ll be joined on bass by another Allman Brothers Band offspring, Berry Oakley Jr., the son of original Allman bassist Berry Oakley. Tonight, Devon strolls onstage to hearty applause and rips into his instrumental funk-blues jam “Mahalo.” But when Duane joins him three songs in for a version of “Blue Sky,” a Dickey Betts–penned song that appears on the Allmans’ 1972 classic Eat a Peach, the crowd jumps to their feet and loses their collective minds.
Legacy can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially when you’re the sons of two members of arguably America’s greatest rock-and-roll band. Too much reverence and you’re accused of riding coattails; not enough and it’s perceived as disrespectful. Both Devon and Duane have long been working musicians in their own right. The forty-six-year-old Devon, who didn’t connect with his father until he was seventeen, has spent more than twenty years immersing himself in multiple projects, touring the world, and developing his own fan base. Almost six years younger than Devon, Duane grew up on the road with his father, frequently joining the Allmans onstage before moving to Malibu and playing guitar with various L.A. bands, including Dawes, eventually releasing his debut EP, Sketches of American Music, in 2018.
The two first met on the 1989 Allman Brothers reunion tour, bonding over a love of heavy-metal bands. Over the years they would run into each other at festivals or other shows, always respectful despite their fathers’ nasty split in 2000. “It never affected our relationship,” says Duane, who bears a striking resemblance to his dad, while Devon looks more like his uncle Duane Allman, Gregg’s brother and fellow Allman founder, who passed away in 1971 after a motorcycle accident. “We’re real sweethearts to each other,” Devon adds. “Duane is more my brother than anyone.”
After Gregg’s death in May 2017, Devon retreated, canceling a year’s worth of planned shows to grieve. But during a tribute concert for his dad in San Francisco that December, Duane joined him onstage, and Devon felt a deeper sense of peace with the Allman legacy. It just felt right to be playing with each other, but neither of them wanted to force a partnership. Though they began touring together with their own bands, it took a few months before they even discussed making a record. “I was perfectly comfortable with it not happening,” Devon says. “We’re wired completely different.” Adds Duane: “We needed to find out if we could live with each other.”
The two began to have long conversations over dinners and soon enlisted the help of Duane’s friend Stoll Vaughan, a fellow Los Angeles–based musician. Vaughan served as an intermediary, keeping track of the pair’s riffs, lyrics, and melodies and helping shape them into drafts. “He was like a songwriting secretary but times a thousand,” Duane quips.
Recorded at the revered Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama (prior to the Allman Brothers, Duane Allman worked for a time as a session musician at the nearby FAME Recording Studios), Down to the River has elements that sound instantly familiar. The opening to “Shinin’” calls to mind the swirling guitar parts on “Whipping Post” and “Jessica”—before Duane’s reedy tenor takes over while he peels off one squealing riff after another. The title cut captures the Shoals’ swampy, mellow groove, complete with a shimmering organ from keyboardist Peter Levin, who played with Gregg for years. “Autumn Breeze” is an epic psychedelic jam, peaking with zigzagging guitar fireworks. It’s abundantly clear that the two are bringing out the best in each other. “Setting aside their heritage, they have their own chemistry,” says former Allman Brothers keyboardist and Rolling Stones musical director Chuck Leavell, who guests on the nostalgic lament “Good Ol’ Days.” “It bodes well for each of them. The more they do this [together], the better they’ll get.”
The next night, following a gig outside of Daytona Beach, Duane sits alone backstage, strumming a guitar and singing a new song he recently wrote while in Morocco. The owner of the venue comes in to say hello and mentions how big a fan she is of the Allman Brothers. “Our fathers’ music was the soundtrack to their fans’ good times and the medicine for the bad times,” Duane says after she leaves. “I think doing the legacy proud is what we’re doing. But when the world hears our album, hopefully people will realize, ‘Hey, they’re not just the sons of these guys. They have their own things to say.’ We’re proud of our own identity.”